Those Lost To Time

Some will never be traced but it is interesting to remind ourselves of the reasons.

In the post-Roman and pre-Christian era the practice of burial varied. Indeed cremation was the norm until the late 6th and 7th centuries when the increasing influence of Christianity took hold. As there were few buildings of substance in which to be buried, Kings / Chieftains would often be buried in forts or ‘barrows’ close to a village or place of personal significance to them.  In  later Christian times, early Abbeys / Cathedrals were wooden structures and should a King be interred there, fire, warfare, weather and age would eventually bring about the demise of the building and uncertainty of the grave.

The dissolution of the monasteries led to royal remains being exhumed and thrown away together with a goodly number of saints and their shrines. Thomas Wriothesley, one of Henry viii’s Commissioners wrote to Thomas Cromwell in 1538 after the destruction of the Shrine of St Swithun in Winchester Cathedral saying, “which done, we intend both at Hyde (Hyde Abbey – the burial place of King Alfred) … to sweep away all the rotten bones that be called relics …”  A little over a hundred years later, Oliver Cromwell’s regime purged the Cathedrals and Abbeys of any last vestige of royal privilege in death, by despoiling what was left.

Unexpected ‘finds’ of missing royal remains, however close they may be to fitting the known facts, continue to be controversial. After discovering the remains of two young bodies in the Tower of London in 1674, it was understandably assumed they were those of the young Edward v (1483) and his brother Richard, Duke of York (the Princes in the Tower). They were subsequently interred in Westminster Abbey but confirmation of their identity continues to cause debate. A discovery in Shaftsbury Abbey in 1935 of what was assumed to be the remains of Edward the Martyr (979) was, as late as 1989 unresolved even after carbon dated verified their age. King Alfred’s last burial site at Hyde Abbey may now have been finally discovered but his alleged remains in St Bartholomew’s Churchyard continue to be contentious, and King Harold’s grave has to be weighed against a legend that he survived Hastings and lived as a hermit! To complete the example, Queen Ann Boleyn’s body is almost certainly in St Peter ad Vincula in the Tower where she was beheaded, but she is also claimed to be buried in the Boleyn Church at Salle, Norfolk, and her heart in two other churches!

Other known resting places are empty too: the tomb of Athelstan and in the case of Richard iii, his bones were tipped into the River Stour and his stone coffin used as a horse trough outside a tavern for decades.* Fortunately, the vast majority of our Kings and Queens are actually where they were laid to rest, affording visitors, like myself, an opportunity to pay our respects.

*See earlier section regarding recent discoveries concerning Richard iii.

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